We keep trying to reform our political system to make it more “democratic.” Grassroots organizations across the world are pushing reforms, trying to bring politics closer to the people. Parties have turned to primaries and local caucuses to select candidates. Ballot initiatives and referenda allow citizens to enact laws directly.
Many democracies now use proportional representation, encouraging smaller, more issue-focussed parties, rather than two dominant,“big tent” ones. At the same time, voters keep getting angrier.
It appears that popular democracy has paradoxically eroded trust in political systems worldwide. What if we are going in the totally wrong direction?
In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, we talk to Ian Shapiro, a professor of political science and the director of the MacMillan Center at Yale University. He is the co-author of Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy from Itself.
Shapiro argues that the devolving power of political parties — and the evolving power of grassroots — is at the core of the problem. To revive confidence in governance, he says, we must restore power to the core institution of representative democracy: the political party.
Shapiro explains that when voters have too much control, it often sets the system up for failure and disappointment. Instead, we should look at political parties as teams that bundle lots of issues and put many programs in front of voters that are not based on single-issue constituencies.
Voters need to understand, Shapiro tells Jeff Schechtman, that there is an opportunity-cost to everything, and that we have to approach all issues with moderation.
Comparing the political process to “last best offer arbitration,” he explains why moderation is even more important than compromise, which often leads to extreme positions as a starting point.
In the end, Shapiro shows how and why political parties have gotten weaker — and that many of our problems of governance stem from exactly that.